A guest post by Emma Kelly:
The day of the 2016 US Presidential Election I took a cab from New Jersey to downtown Manhattan. As we drove through the West End, my driver pointed to protestors outside Hillary Clinton’s election-night party headquarters. New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds waved signs screaming– Hispanics for Trump, Gays for Trump, Women for Trump. My driver was a staunch Democrat and an Obama loyalist. But he found the feminist tone of Hillary’s campaign patronising, and said despite what the media hoped for, the last thing America needed was a Clinton back in the Whitehouse. Trump’s awful, he said, but at least he’s not one of them.
Only months earlier, and prior to Brexit, I travelled on assignment out of London and through Belfast, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham. Contrary to Nigel Farage’s pulsating Vote Leave campaign I saw on the road, my friends and colleagues in London were relaxed about the upcoming referendum. The Vote Remain message was predictably championed by Westminster and echoed by the mainstream media and thousands of Londoners at home in one of the most diverse cities in the world – blinkered to the millions in the regions who were screaming at a Government that wasn’t listening.
I wasn’t surprised when the UK voted to leave the EU, nor when America elected Donald Trump as President. It was amusing, in both cases, that journalists, based out of cosmopolitan London and New York continued to report shock and outrage as their online audiences looked on and decided they too were shocked and outraged. Affected audiences couldn’t accept that there was a significant swell of public support for candidates advocating policies so contradictory to the narrative of a world they were used to – a world confined to their city, ideals and selected newsfeed.
Over time, major parties on the left and right have comprised their core-voting base and neutralised policies in an effort to win the centre ground. But the voters are no longer there – instead they are turning to candidates that staunchly champion nationhood and change to the political administration, as we know it. Campaigns in the UK and US, including the rise of Bernie Sanders, were built and fuelled on an unrelenting distrust for the political elite. Shades of the urban-rural divide that fuelled Vote Leave champions in Britain paralleled Trump’s mandate to distance himself from Washington and resonate with disenfranchised voters in every corner of America by promising something different.
Interestingly, local commenters have dismissed similar scenarios playing out in New Zealand (unsurprisingly from Auckland and the Wellington beltway.) We’re at the height of a digital media revolution, yet as Farage and Trump’s popularity proved, understanding the changing pulse of nation coupled with a targeted on-the-ground campaign, is political dynamite. And in a country as geographically small as ours, parties underestimate this at their peril. I recall when National released another routine infographic ahead of the Northland by-election in 2015 Winston Peters’ campaign bus had already pulled into the Electorate with a promise that a change was going to come. And it did.
Regardless of her media-magnetism, Jacinda Ardern’s appointment to Leader will only be as effective as Labour’s capacity to resonate beyond the online and urban fringe by championing a vision that is not only authentic, but also unapologetically bold. And with less than fifty days to September 23, the grassroots campaign must be extraordinary. Winston Peters knows a campaign doesn’t start weeks from polling day – it started three years ago. He also knows the media will write the election narrative we read, the same media that believed Americans were with Hillary, when in fact they weren’t.
Emma Kelly is a public relations manager and former government press secretary currently based in Canada.